The legendary Stephen Sondheim isn’t prominent on South Coast Repertory’s list of creative talents to draw from when production plans are discussed. But when SCR does select one of his many shows, you can bet it’d be one with a body count comparable to a “Die Hard” movie.
Yes, “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” has set up his hair-trimming (and throat-cutting) operation on the Segerstrom Stage of the Costa Mesa showplace, and it’s most likely as fierce and frightening as it was when it debuted on Broadway four decades ago.
This being SCR, director Kent Nicholson’s emphasis rests more on character relationships than on musical acumen (though music director David O helms a terrific orchestra behind the scenes). The spotlight, as it should, falls on the leading performers, both of whom are magnificent.
In the title role of the revenge-bent tonsorial artist who gives several of his clients an extra-close shave before getting to his true target, David St. Louis brings a resonant operatic quality to his vocalizing. St. Louis modulates his tone to cast utter fear into anyone unfortunate enough to encounter him.
The most unforgettable performer, however, is Jamey Hood as Mrs. Lovett who, admittedly, bakes “the worst meat pies in London” — that is until Sweeney adds some extra ingredients. Hood sashays around the stage with a wide-eyed grin and a disarming Cockney accent as she gradually worms her way into the barber's favor.
This leads to a duet that should be in the Sondheim Hall of Fame — a clever first act-closing ditty called “A Little Priest,” in which Hood and St. Louis visualize the possibilities of their homicidal menu. Clearly the highlight of the show, the number spotlights the pair’s comedic chops before things get truly darker in the second act.
Devin Archer lends his powerful vocal chords to the role of Anthony, Sweeney’s ally who loves the barber’s captive daughter. This charming character, Johanna, is sweetly sung by Juliana Hansen.
The evil Judge Turpin, whom Sweeney targets for past misdeeds, is suavely portrayed by Robert Mammana. His portly lackey, Beadle, gets a fine obsequious interpretation from Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, while Roland Rusinek grabs a chunk of the spotlight as the broadly outrageous rival barber to Sweeney.
Conlan Ledwith rises from assistant con artist to eventual hero as the ultra-loyal lad Toby. And Erica Hanrahan-Ball mesmerizes as the hauntingly screeching beggar woman whose link to the plot is revealed too tardily.
John Iacovelli’s ever-changing set design is a technical masterwork, though positioning of the barber chair may elicit a little head-scratching. Melanie Watnik’s period costumes are particularly impressive, as are the lighting designs of Lap Chi Chu.
The innate power of the Sondheim score and the superb performances are reason enough to catch this compelling musical, one of few ever done but done splendidly at South Coast Repertory. Just don’t miss “A Little Priest.”
Tom Titus reviews local theater.
IF YOU GO
What: “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
Where: South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Tuesdays through Sundays at varying curtain times until Feb. 16
Cost: $21 to $86